Joss Whedon, who wrote and directed the first two Avengers movies, once defined the difference between television shows and movies this way: Television shows are a question, and movies are an answer. Where television offers a venue for exploring a subject for years, movies make a definite statement.
The Avengers, which brought the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe project to a close, was a real movie in this Whedonesque sense. With Avengers: Age of Ultron, a creative tug-of-war erupted between Whedon and Marvel Studios (one Whedon later admitted “broke” him) over the studio’s insistence on using the film to set the stage for the next phase, like a TV episode.
The fact is, every MCU movie to date that isn’t an origin story (for a hero or a team) has had a distinct extended second-act feel, like episodes in a series orchestrated by power producer Kevin Feige, the big-screen equivalent of a showrunner.
This includes the more celebrated installments like the Captain America sequels as well as introductory non-origin stories like Spider-Man: Homecoming and Black Panther. Even the origin stories aren’t automatically immune: Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange meet Whedon’s standard, but Ant-Man doesn’t.
Fans might ask whether this is necessarily a bad thing. Who says Whedon’s theory is the only way? There have been big-screen cliffhangers before, from The Empire Strikes Back to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Anyway, television is better than movies these days; perhaps movies can or ought to adapt?
I don’t think so, no. Not like this, anyway.
Consider Avengers: Infinity War. Indeed, you must consider it, since it isn’t just the latest installment in the MCU, it is the MCU — as much of it as could possibly be compressed into a sprawling 160 minutes.
What pulls all these sprawling properties into the same orbit is the MCU’s ultimate big bad: Thanos, a twisted, godlike being who looks not entirely unlike a lavender-dyed Dwayne Johnson, but with a tree stump where his chin should be.
The power broker behind Loki in Avengers and Ronan in Guardians, Thanos is out to collect all six of the MCU’s all-powerful MacGuffins, the Infinity Stones, which together form a weapon of ultimate power capable of reshaping reality.
Unique among comic-book screen villains, Thanos is soft-spoken, with an air of empathy and compassion and none of the grandiosity of Loki or the sneering swagger of Guardians’ Ronan. (He’s sagely underplayed, via performance capture, by Josh Brolin, but for the rest of the cast you’re on your own. If you don’t know the main players by this point, heaven help you.)
Thanos doesn’t want to rule the universe or destroy it. An implacable embodiment of Population Bomb-style Malthusian culture-of-death anxieties, he just wants to wipe out half of all living things for the good of the remaining half.
Infinity War is the grandiose culmination to date, not only of the 10-year history of the MCU, but of the larger comic-book super-culture. Infinity War can be seen as a commentary of the failings of Justice League, which unwisely sought to conflate the arcs of all the Avengers movies to date, including this one, into a single film.
More than that, Infinity War is a rebuke to every would-be Hollywood shared universe seeking to emulate the MCU’s success, every cinematic Big Bang that fizzled out, from Warner Bros’ MonsterVerse and Universal’s failed Dark Universe to the abortive franchise planned around Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur movie.
It’s even an apex of sorts for the whole apocalyptic ultimate-weapon action-blockbuster genre linking movies from Star Wars to Tomorrowland, along with something like half the Marvel movies to date, all of which turn on what I’ve called a Black Box of Badness.
The Tesseract in The Avengers, the Aether in Thor: The Dark World and the Orb in Guardians were all Black Boxes of Badness. They were also Infinity Stones, and, when you combine them with the other three, they become the Ultimate Black Box of Badness. Really! Infinity War is peak Black Box of Badness, for good and for ill.
Infinity War does the thing it does about as well as I can imagine it being done. It’s from the same writer-director teams as Civil War (screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, directors Anthony and Joe Russo), but the cast is almost twice the size and the storylines to be juggled are exponentially more complex.
There are some tonal dissonances between, for instance, grim scenes of death and mayhem and banal Guardians-style buffoonery — for example, an insecure Star-Lord protesting that he’s not affecting a deeper voice to sound more like Thor. Later there’s a far worse moment with Star-Lord that disgraces his character basically beyond redemption (not that he wasn’t already a total jerk in the second Guardians movie).
Yet the screenplay has been much labored over, with clever choices made and threads carefully aligned; for the most part it barrels along like the world’s biggest, flashiest monster truck. Six years ago I described The Avengers as “awesomeness squared”; Infinity War strives with all its might for awesomeness cubed and even tesseracted. It wants to leave you texting your friends “MIND. BLOWN.” It might succeed — but there’s a catch.
Infinity War works by going bigger than every Marvel middle movie to date, not only in all they do, but in all they leave undone. These movies all write checks to be paid off by future movies, which means that a final verdict on any film is always hostage to the next film, and the one after that.
Infinity War settles existing debts in uneven ways. The heroics at the end of Thor: Ragnarok felt hollow to me at the time, but they feel a lot hollower now. Wakanda becomes the site of a fiercely fought last stand, which will gratify Black Panther fans while at the same time burying Wakanda’s political evolution and aspirations in nihilistic destruction.
What will it feel like to go back and watch these films, knowing what follows? There’s no way to know, because Infinity War achieves the biggest of effects by writing the biggest of checks — to be paid off, as always, in the future.
Looking back, I find myself focusing on vanishingly brief moments of humanity, notably a pair of potentially important conversations between a man and a woman about their relationship: Tony and Pepper in New York; Vision and Wanda/Scarlet Witch in Scotland.
Both conversations are rudely and quickly interrupted by extremely dangerous events, because this is a movie about a potential apocalypse and not about ordinary human life. But there it is: We need some sense of ordinary human life if the apocalypse is supposed to matter.
The scene with Wanda and Vision, in particular, is perhaps the most ordinary human moment in the film (prescinding from Vision being an artificial being). If there’s a moment in the film that says “Life is good,” it’s this moment — and, in a movie with a villain eloquently articulating a compassionate case for wiping out half of all life in the universe, the counterproposal that life is good shouldn’t be taken for granted.
No relationship in the MCU is as vital and interesting as Tony and Pepper’s in the first Iron Man. (T’Challa and his sister Shuri in Black Panther come closest.) That so vibrant a “civilian” as Pepper has been for years reduced to cameos (or, worse, temporarily infused with superpowers) is emblematic of why the small-screen approach doesn’t scale well to the big screen.
On a weekly series, Pepper would be a regular character and her relationship with Tony would occasionally be at least the B-plot of an entire episode. A weekly series can vary between quieter, less eventful episodes and more high-impact episodes, each informing the other.
A tentpole movie, no matter how many Marvel cranks out or how long past two hours they run, has no time for that. Each installment is an Event, with big beats and (hypothetically) big stakes. (Spider-Man: Homecoming somewhat subverted the formula with a pleasingly smaller-scale story. Infinity War is the polar opposite, working the formula as it’s never been worked before.)
Infinity War not only doesn’t make a definite statement; it hardly poses a question. Thanos has an idea, an ideology, but it’s barely challenged or cross-examined.
Perhaps the most important exchange occurs between Thanos and Gamora, whom he raised as his daughter after massacring her people. (By the end of the film it’s clear that Thanos is the de facto protagonist and his relationship with Gamora the defining relationship. There’s a flashback to Gamora’s childhood that probably should have opened the film.)
Thanos argues that he saved Gamora since her people lived in desperate poverty — but Gamora insists that they were happy. To Thanos’ contention that universal overpopulation will lead to misery, Gamora says only, “You don’t know that.” There’s nothing here like the elderly German defying Loki’s command to kneel in The Avengers or Cap rebuffing Loki’s worldview by alluding to his “disagreement” with Hitler.
While the filmmakers work hard to balance the cast, some players are more crucial than others. In chess terms, Vision is the king and the Scarlet Witch perhaps the queen. After that, Thor and especially Doctor Strange stand out.
On its own terms, Infinity War must be judged a success. That’s because the overriding creative priority is just like most Marvel movies: to make you want to see the next one. Mission accomplished — though I say it with a certain resentful irony.
Yes, I want to see the next Marvel movie. But I long for popcorn movies like the last couple of Mission: Impossible installments, in which, after two-plus hours of ridiculously entertaining action, the mission actually is accomplished.
Caveat Spectator: Much intense fantasy action violence, fantasy torture and a high mortality rate; some profanity, cursing and crude language.